The best books on the Napoleonic Wars

Philip Dwyer Author Of Napoleon: The Path to Power 1769 - 1799
By Philip Dwyer

The Books I Picked & Why

The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848

By Paul W. Schroeder

The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848

Why this book?

This masterful analysis of European foreign policy encompasses a period slightly larger than the life of Napoleon, but the core of the book is the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. On first reading this I was struck not only by the depth and breadth of Schroeder’s knowledge, but also by his uncanny ability to question standard interpretations and to present an original and oftentimes provocative evaluation. This book made me think about how best to write history. Elegantly written, this is an accomplished tome that will be read by students of foreign policy for many years to come. 


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Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814

By Dominic Lieven

Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814

Why this book?

One of the few books to explore Russia’s interactions with France, and not just the disastrous 1812 campaign. Lieven, a specialist in Imperial Russian history, gives the reader an invaluable insight into Russian thinking and Russian sources that is often missing from English language books on the Napoleonic Wars. Written in an accessible and engaging style, it explores the central role Alexander I played in Napoleon’s downfall as ‘liberator’ of Europe.


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The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It

By David A. Bell

The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It

Why this book?

Not everyone agreed with the author’s assessment of the Napoleonic Wars as the first total war, and I can’t say that I am overly convinced myself, but Bell presents the reader with an interesting and provocative interpretation of the practice of warfare at the dawn of the modern era. I came away with a better appreciation of the horror of battle and war during this period, something that is often glossed over in the standard military histories of the era. Was the practice of ‘total war’ brought about by mass conscription or had the seeds already been planted? 


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The Peninsular War: A New History

By Charles J. Esdaile

The Peninsular War: A New History

Why this book?

Charles Esdaile, a specialist of Spanish history, is one of the more prolific writers on the Napoleonic Wars, so it was not easy choosing only one of the numerous books he has penned, including a general history of the wars. Spain, however, has always remained a bit of an outlier in the history of the period. Here we get an insider’s view of the situation in Spain leading to the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy and an accessible, lively account of the often complicated events that followed. Esdaile doesn’t shy away from treating either the Spanish, the guerrillas, or Wellington head on.


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Wellington: The Path to Victory 1769-1814

By Rory Muir

Wellington: The Path to Victory 1769-1814

Why this book?

Speaking of which, this is the first of a two-volume biography of Wellington and is no doubt the most exhaustive and the most up-to-date biography of the man and his career. I’ve personally always found Wellington to be a fairly unlikeable character and there is nothing in this biography that made me change my mind. However, Muir’s familiarity with the sources and the archives enables him to integrate the personal, the military, and the political into this thorough examination of the man that ultimately defeated Napoleon.


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